Teaching Graduate Students about Social Class: Using a Classifying Activity with an Inductive Approach

Article excerpt


Teaching about social class, or socioeconomic status,1 is an important undertaking, but one that is particularly challenging for a number of reasons. For one, many Americans tend to see our society as having a very open class system, which can lead them to overlook the costliness of the inequality that does exist (Breen & Jonsson, 2005).2 Second, discussion of social class can be uncomfortable (Davis, 1992) and rife with stereotyping and thus difficult to manage.

Third, conventional wisdom tells us that class consciousness among Americans is underdeveloped if not altogether lacking (Tynes, 2001)-perhaps due in part to the limited way in which poverty is defined (Greenberg, 2007) and also portrayed in the news media (FAIR, 2007)-although this wisdom has been challenged (e.g., Vanneman & Cannon, 1987). Fourth, while scholarship on teaching about human difference and inequality has increased in the past couple of decades, most of the attention has been paid to race, ethnicity, and gender; hence, there is somewhat less pedagogical support in the area of social class (Adair & Dahlberg, 2003).

Teaching about social class holds special significance for students who will work in the fields of education and human services. Students who are preparing to be (or are already) educators or educational administrators, counselors, or social workers, for example, are relatively privileged compared to many of the people with whom they do or will work.3 The specific unit within the institution where I teach has a stated goal of preparing educators and human services professionals for work in urban settings, primarily in educational and community institutions. Therefore, these professionals will likely work with students who not only differ from them racially and/or ethnically, but also socioeconomically. In order to enhance their ability to be successful in these contexts, these persons need to understand social class in a sophisticated way.

I teach this mix of students in multiple courses, including a master's level course in sociology of education and a doctoral course on the social and cultural aspects of schooling. The majority of the students I encounter, however, are enrolled in a master's course called "Education and Society." This course falls under the category of social foundations of education, which is a subfield that relies on the concepts and modes of inquiry of the "foundational disciplines" of the humanities (especially history and philosophy) and the social sciences (especially sociology, anthropology, and political science).

This type of course is commonly offered in universities across the nation. Foundations courses date back to the 1930s, and even though they have taken many forms since that time, a constant feature has been their dual descriptive and prescriptive dimensions: a focus on "what schools are doing and what they ought to be doing" (CLSE, 1996: 5; emphasis in original). At my institution, various instructors teach the education and society course. The disciplines from which each one draws depend on his or her academic interests and training; in my case, they are mainly philosophy, sociology, and political science.

A Starting Point

One starting point for teaching about social class is with a definition of the term. Many different definitions exist and there are a number of good ones from which to choose. However, a definition can come across as mere words on a page if the necessary connections are not made to render the definition more meaningful. This is why, instead of beginning a discussion of social class in education with a stated definition, I find it useful to allow to students to work toward a self-generated definition of the concept.

On the surface, this may appear to be an inappropriately elementary point of departure for a class of master's students. Yet it seems to work rather well for a few reasons. For one thing, the activity is designed to be a discussion starter for that day's class session-to invite the students into a deeper exploration of the topic. …